Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. - Galatians 3:19 (ESV)
The last two posts have been intended as explorations of major concepts of the biblical narrative as they have surfaced in the summaries of the Bible books. So far, we have considered the connections between creation and the fall and living for God through Christ. Now we come to the law.
Understanding the Law
What do we mean by the law? We mean the law of Moses in particular. That is, the law which God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. This is the law summed up in the Ten Commandments, or "Ten Words", as recorded in Exodus 20:1-17 called the Ten Commandments in Exodus 34:28 and Deuteronomy 4:13; 10:4. The law spans from Exodus 20 through Deuteronomy, though it is common for the first five books of the Old Testament to be referred to as the Law.
What connection is there between the law and living for God through Christ? Now that the "offspring" has come, the law is no longer active. Paul makes clear that the law served a purpose for a time. Once Christ came, the law had served its primary purpose.
However, there are still connections between the law given to Moses and fulfilled in Christ and how we live today. The law regulated the whole of Israelite life in a way that it does not regulate the lives of Christians today, but that is not the only thing the law did. The law had multiple uses in addition to ordering Israelite society which are still active today.
In general, it seems common for us to think of the law as consisting only of the explicit commands recorded especially in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. However, unlike the US Code, the Jewish law is embedded in narrative. The law of Moses is only properly understood in terms of its connection to the story of which it is a part. This fact does not make the law any less meaningful or significant, but more so.
And this is the problem with our understanding today. I once read of a man who lived in New York City and who spent something like a year attempting to follow the Mosaic law to a "t". This is preposterous, not only because he was in New York City and not Israel, but also because the law is a covenant with an entire nation and is irreducible to a list of prescribed behaviors for an individual. Nevertheless, throwing pebbles at potential adulterers in the park as a form of stoning makes for interesting reading.
One of the things the law still does is tell the story of the origins of the world and the story of God's choice of Abraham as well as the redemption of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. This story is essential to the law. The story contextualizes the law so that we see not only the rules as they are in themselves but also how they fit into the life which God was preparing for his people in the promised land.
The law also includes the original story of our failure to keep it. On one hand, it is ironic that God would expect his people to comply with a whole system of laws when Adam and Eve had failed to maintain a single one. On the other hand, according to Paul, this appears to be part of the point. The failure to keep the single prohibition in Eden led to many prohibitions. But many of those prohibitions needed to be named because the breaking of the original one led to a cascade of sin. The one sin opened the floodgates, as it were. I think this is part of the reason Paul says the law was added because of transgressions.
The law also sets us up for Christ. Not only do we have the protoevangelion, the first gospel, in Genesis 3, but the elements of the law code and the narrative surrounding it point to the need for and expectation of the Messiah. Paul refers to Christ as our Passover lamb who has been sacrificed, referring to the final sign in Egypt. Jesus makes an analogy between Moses lifting up the serpent and the Son of Man also being lifted up, referring to himself. Hebrews refers to Christ as our great High Priest who has entered the Holy Place once and for all, opening the way for us, referring to the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16. The law points to and/or sets us up for Christ in these ways and many more.
The Law and Our Lives
All this is to say that if we are going to learn to live for God through Christ, and that therefore understanding Christ is essential, then understanding the law is essential for understanding Christ. Our understanding of the law now is incomplete apart from its fulfillment in Christ, and our knowledge of Christ is incomplete apart from his precursor in the law.
Just consider: if we did not have the law, we would miss not only the stories of the origins of the world, the nations, and languages, but we would also miss from the laws themselves the revelation of God's moral nature and demands captured within them. The law, added because of transgressions, does much in the way of showing us what sin is. The rest of the Old Testament following the law is in many ways recounted specifically in contrast to or juxtaposition with the law. The law is the foundation of the Old Testament; indeed, it is the old covenant itself. And the Old Testament is the foundation for the New Testament. Jesus lived his entire life in the shadow of the Old Testament, the law, as part of his mission to complete a transition to the new covenant.
In sum, the law reveals much, much more than a simple list of outdated rules and regulations that no longer have to be followed since the Christ has come. The law provides a foundation for our understanding of Christ, of ourselves, and of the character of God. By studying the law with a view to living for God through Christ, we receive numberless advantages in our understanding of and appreciation for the God who gave it. The law's insight into the character and plans of God so many years ago do much to motivate us to live for God through Christ now.